Christian von der Goltz
Behind the news, behind the curves and theories, behind the ongoing argument over who says what, behind all the noise of the internet, a ghostly silence has been spreading into every aspect of daily life. More than all the talk of numbers and statistics, it’s this silence that is changing people’s behavior. Social distancing isn’t the cause of this silence, but it’s helped to spread and intensify it. Ubiquitously, wordlessly, it follows us with the beautiful spring weather like a mild breeze. We all know where it comes from: people are dying, we read about it every day, and there will be more. But all we hear and see is the spring in the air: birds are chirping, flowers blossoming, people are strolling in the parks as if the worst were already past. The eerie silence seems to grow with the number of dead. There are so many dead now that new graveyards have to be dug out with bulldozers.
Silence is the soundtrack to the virus’s global spread. It’s the first force capable of interrupting global capitalism’s voracious greed, and remarkably, nearly everyone obeys: politicians, CEOs, religious authorities, even Pope Francis obeys. They do it almost shamefully. It’s the first time we’ve been forced to follow measures that haven’t been dictated by financial interests, but by another category altogether: the necessity to protect human existence.
We live from day to day; we feed our imagination and our thirst for explanation with statistics and speculation. When I look back in my journal, I can trace how the exceptional conditions have come over us gradually, week by week, and yet it feels as though they’ve arrived overnight. Things we thought only a day or two ago now seem naïve. We’re confused; nothing is the way it used to be, and it remains to be seen whether anything will ever be the same again. Some politicians have begun using military metaphors: “we are in a war and doomed to win it,” said French president Macron. In a way he’s right: in wartime, during all the bombing and destruction, the time afterwards seems unimaginable, yet it’s this vision that people cling to: afterwards is the utopia. But war, as we know it, comes with atrocities, devastation, filth, ear-splitting noise. Pandemic arrives without a soundtrack or visible effects; apart from internal organs, it doesn’t overtly destroy anything—and so we’re not wading through blocks and blocks of rubble from demolished buildings, but worrying, in silence and largely alone, over the prospect of ruined livelihoods and dangerously destabilized economies. Hospitals do their part to keep the scourge invisible; apart from the occasional shocking video of a nurse or doctor posted late at night after a grueling shift, we see and hear nothing. We’re told to be nice to each other, to take walks, to read books, to eat healthy foods: visions from a better life we’ve never quite had.
In the midst of all this, there are people who refuse to obey the virus because it challenges their pride or their right to freedom. On the political stage we see the die-hard reality deniers, the Trumps and the Bolsonaros and their supporters, fail on a royal scale—in spite of their tremendous arsenals of worldly power—while their unfathomable ignorance causes thousands of innocent people to die. But the pandemic cares neither about power nor opinions; it’s unconcerned with what people claim or think. Perhaps there is a lesson to learn in all this: that within this new silence, and all the suffering it conceals, there was also something missing in the time before—during the era of untamed capitalism and greed, the era of ever-expanding growth and progress, the era of glittering events and the-show-must-go-on—a state of mind which seemed as outdated as the only word we have for it: humility.
For many, these past two months have been the hardest two months of their lives: people hopelessly alone, or stuck with bored and screaming kids in cramped apartments, forced to simultaneously home school and home office; people not allowed to visit their elderly parents in nursing homes. Doctors and nurses battling what we’re not supposed to see; people in the service industries forced to go to work without being provided with the requisite protection. This contrast between a quiet spring for those not on the front line of the pandemic and the nameless horror taking place behind it feels like we’re living in a science-fiction movie.
In the never-ending stream of Corona news, two images have opened my eyes to the full scope of the tragedy: one was an erratic cell phone video clip taken inside a hospital in the Iranian city of Qom. The floor was covered with the bodies of people who had died the night before and were wrapped in black garbage bags ready to be hauled away; all around them, staff were hurrying back and forth in seemingly helpless agitation to make room for the never-ending supply of new corpses. The other image revealed a long convoy of black military trucks waiting in line in the middle of the night with their engines running, loaded with corpses that had been picked up at the hospital in Bergamo, destined now for improvised cemeteries in surrounding towns, since there was no room left for the dead in Bergamo. What hit home was the sobering fact that people are dying in numbers unknown during times of peace. Our societies are taking the greatest care to distract our attention from this most obvious fact of all. We read the numbers and statistics, but numbers remain numbers, and the curves reveal nothing about the tragedies unfolding behind them even as reports emerge to caution the heedless young that it’s no longer merely the elderly who are succumbing. This unspoken edict preventing us, who are still healthy, from seeing the ill, the dying, and the dead, is part of a strategy to avoid mass panic, to keep our society functioning.
From the moment I saw these videos, I wished to be told to stay home in the harshest tone; I wished for the severest form of quarantine. How was it, I kept asking myself, that I was longing to be imprisoned for my own protection? The wish was there the very moment I saw the videos, I didn’t have to talk myself into it, it was as though it had been hiding there all along in some remote corner of my subconscious. It was as though I’d been longing for something—and this was the weird thing I hadn’t been able to admit to myself, let alone to anybody else—as though I’d been longing for “normality” to finally come to an end. And then, when the German government offered its so-called “creatives” financial assistance to weather months of cancelled freelance work—the envy of many other countries where small businesses promised assistance have been left with empty hands—this sudden freedom, this unreal life felt like a gift from heaven, a once-in-a-lifetime-experience of halted time.
I’ve been struggling with a book project on my mother’s childhood during World War II, which she, as the daughter of a Norwegian politician, spent in house arrest in a tiny German village near Berlin. She herself never told her story to anyone, behavior typical of people who have experienced war, imprisonment, or torture in childhood. In the larger picture, she didn’t have it all that bad, but what she did see was apparently enough to keep these memories sealed up inside her. This is a story from another time and place, and yet I see a similar psychological mechanism at work, a maxim, never openly declared, that everybody—from ordinary people to government officials—have to obey: no one shall see the horrors happening all around us. Societies remain peaceful as long as people can be induced to think that everything is fine. This peace helped create the prosperity I and all my contemporaries grew up in. The religion of our society was progress, and it was as beautiful as it was false: something profound and elementary was always missing, but it was as though we weren’t allowed to talk about it. That progress, which was supposed to last forever, has now come to a sudden halt, and nobody dares speculate on what will come after. But when I see the first signs of the German economy rebooting, when I see the automobile manufacturers resuming production and masked workers grateful to have their jobs back—when I consider that things are likely to continue as they were before—I realize that some of us will mourn the lost chance this interlude of silence offered us to reevaluate what our societies are based on—and to make changes that have long been urgent, self-evident, and necessary.